Feminist Utopianism and Education: Educating for the Good Society
reviewed by David Halpin - May 22, 2008
Title: Feminist Utopianism and Education: Educating for the Good Society
Author(s): Christine Forde
Publisher: Sense Publishers, Rotterdam
ISBN: 9087900570, Pages: 156, Year: 2007
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I enjoyed reading this book, finding it very interesting and extremely challenging.
But then I would. For I am fascinated by utopianism as an impulse and literary genre; and I agree completely with the importance of making links between utopianism and education, having myself written a book on this theme a little while back (Halpin, 2003), a fact generously commented upon by Christine Forde, this volumes author.
Although my utopian-educational outlook has taken a distinctively romantic turn in more recent days (Halpin, 2007), my foundational interest in the nature of and need for utopian thinking in education, and more generally, remains strong. Indeed, my interest has been reinforced by reading this book and writing this review.
This outcome was achieved largely by the manner in which its author draws on and explicates the significance for educational studies of feminist aspects of the utopian imagination, in particular, fictional utopian texts which envisage alternative societies in which conventional notions of patriarchy are turned upside down. This is unusual in educational studies. Indeed, it may even be unique, because I cannot think of any other full-length book on education which does the same, though there are several that perform this task very well in political studies.
Accordingly, enquirers seeking an entrée to the emergent field of educational futures (which is the title of the series to which this study is a contribution), and one that has a distinctive feminist-utopian inflection, will not be disappointed with this book.
What they will find is a volume written in two sections. The first section (chapters 1 to 4) reviews debates about the nature of utopianism, with the intention of demonstrating the potential of feminist-utopian thinking for discussions of educational futures. In this section, Forde successfully guides her readers through a variety of literatures that reflect, initially, on utopianism as a tradition of political thought, moving on subsequently to an analysis of the different ideologies of gender found in feminist-utopian writing.
Key writers that feature in this section of the book include contemporary scholars of utopianism such as Ruth Levitas, Lucy Sargisson and Tom Moylan, and historic contributors to the genre such as Karl Mannheim, Herbert Marcuse and Ernst Bloch, who figures prominently, in particular, with his powerful and compelling notion of utopia as a form of not-yet consciousness.
Although all of this material is very familiar to me, the helpful manner in which it is discussed in Section 1 of the book provides a secure guide to those encountering it for the first time.
Such readers, I predict, will be fascinated to learn (on p. 22) as I was that John Deweys alternative vision for education espoused an explicitly utopian view of things and one, moreover, with which my own view directly coincides. I was very happy to learn this, given my continuing admiration of Deweys legacy for education.
Equally, I was pleased to read (on a page later) Fordes successful attempt to reconcile my realist position on utopia with Ruth Levitas more experimental approach. Although few readers will be interested in the actual differences represented in these two attitudes, they will, I anticipate, derive benefit from the authors anti-essentialist conception of utopia, which brings them nicely together in an intellectual attitude that permeates her account from start to finish, avoiding all forms of either-or thinking (sadly, too often manifest in other feminist accounts) and seeking rather always to espouse the virtues of and-also analysis.
Section 2 (chapters 5 to 8) examines specific themes emerging from the previous discussion. These include debates about womens distinctiveness and the implications of such debates for classroom pedagogy and the construction of curriculum knowledge; the possibilities of considering the process of education as a kind of nurturing relationship mirroring that of mother and child; the implications of cyber-feminist utopian analyses for educational policy and practice; and the consequences of third wave (utopian) feminism for discussions of a gender free education.
Without wanting overly to constrain readers to read some parts of the book more than others, I was especially taken and challenged by the argument found in its sixth chapter titled Education as Mothering. I did not know, but I am pleased now that I do, that the concepts of motherhood and mothering feature very prominently within feminist utopian writings, the aim being to explicate how the unique female task of being a mother, and the values associated with this role, notably that of caring, might be the founding principles of a transformed and better society. The discussion in this chapter of the variety of literatures that have contributed over the years to this line of argument is fascinating, as is Fordes effort to incorporate fathering into a broader (and-also) principle of care, manifest within society generally and in education in particular. As she comments (on p. 100), the task is one not of excluding men, but of redefining their role in the family, [and] in [other] social agencies . . .
There is, then, much to be gained from reading this book, which offers a refreshingly special feminist-utopian perspective on the future of education, viewed often through the interesting optic of womens historic fictional writing. As the author correctly announces early on in her account, feminist-utopian thinking provides the means of critiquing the present and offering alternative possibilities around issues of gender [and education] (p. 15). This contribution significantly confirms this claim.
Halpin, D. (2003). Hope and education: The role of the utopian imagination. London: RoutledgeFalmer.
Halpin, D. (2007). Romanticism and education: Love, heroism and imagination in pedagogy. London: Continuum.